When the rock jumped so did I, but neither of us jumped very far, in fact I leaned in closer to see. It was no rock but a Sonoran Desert Toad hunched beneath a bower of vinca and petunias nestled alongside a large boulder. I know the Toads live here in the garden but usually I only see them at night and even then they are difficult to see, their black-green skins a perfect camouflage for nocturnal hunts.
His back was to me. Toad’s tough skin had the sheen of a seal fresh from an ocean swim. If I stretched out my hand I might have stroked his back though I doubted he would appreciate it and, to be honest, my desire to touch him was a bit shaky. So I simply nodded, picked up my trowel and continued planting summer annuals, daisies of purple, yellow and gold. As I plunged the trowel into the moist earth Toad made a quick hop, flipping his body 180 degrees the better to focus the round pools of his eyes upon me. The efficiency of his movement impressed me for he seemed so large and ponderous. We each took our measure of the other, then slowly, so as not to frighten him, I slipped the trowel into the soil again. He watched. Only inches away yet we both felt comfortable with our proximity to each other, companionable in fact, and to my delight he watched me dig and place plants around his daytime home. Sitting back on my heels I surveyed my handiwork and looked to him for approval. He didn’t blink, didn’t twitch a muscle, but his fearlessness in my presence conveyed his acknowledgement that these flowers would do a fine job of attracting the most delicious insects for his nightly meal.
All through the week as I made the rounds with my watering can I looked for him but he hid himself well from the sun’s eye. His companionship that day, however, stayed with me and I was not sure why. This was not a fairy tale, no princess eager to kiss a frog or a toad. As a friend he is much too quiet, even for someone as quiet as me. Perhaps that is the thread between us, the ability to sit together in silence and share the beauty of the flowers. How does he sense? His eyes are large round orbs to take in the night but I spotted no ears to hear my approach. His skin appears leathery yet is it delicate enough to sense the wings of the approaching fly? His reflexes are quick, I have seen how fast he can spin and jump. I longed to see him again to get to know him better.
Deciding to take advantage of the relatively cool morning air the other day, I knelt beside the flower bed to pull weeds and found Toad. He didn’t jump this time, simply turned those liquid eyes on me once again and watched my every move. It was then I realized he was as curious about me as I was about him. Since that day I see him often around the garden, mostly in the evening or cool morning. I nod my head to him, he watches me. Perfect gardening companions.
Ohhhhh! Momma Quail had been so clever at hiding tiny clutch of eggs they almost escaped my eye. Here at Smiling Dog Ranch we have two greenhouses, a plant “hospital” and a cactus nursery that need tending. The cactus nursery contains row after row of five gallon and larger pots with every sort of cactus, yucca, agave and palm. Weeds find their way into the pots so I’ve made it my job to pick my way through the golden barrels, prickly pears, and opuntia, cleaning the pots and making them customer ready. It is tedious work avoiding the stickers and thorns except for the row of totem poles, tall mild green cactus that are smooth to the touch. The largest totem pole is a beautiful plant with an arm growing out of its side very near to the soil. Nestled in the crook of that arm were the eggs, an even dozen. Later in the day I peeked in to find Momma Quail tending to her duties, eyeing me over her shoulder. With a wave and a whispered “I’ll leave you alone” I walked away.
At least once a day I wandered over to check on Momma. Most times she was there and although wary, she seemed to understand I wouldn’t hurt her or her nest. One day I managed to recount the eggs….sixteen in all! Such a small space for so many babies had me worried. Worried she would have too many mouths to feed; worried the dogs might find her and the chicks. The next day Momma was in place keeping her eggs warm. I’ve heard that Quail Moms and Pops take turns sitting on the nest but the female was the only adult bird I saw. Perhaps Papa had the night shift.
A week later the dogs woke us in the middle of the night with restless barking and whining. This happens anytime they hear coyotes yip or sense javelinas on the prowl. When we let them out to investigate they run at full tilt barking ferociously, something we are sure the neighbors do not appreciate, so instead we shushed them until they resettled for the night. The next morning Tom went out with the dogs to make the morning rounds.
“The javelinas were partying last night. I found a big waller in the nursery.”
Those words were a knife to my heart! I rushed out to the cactus nursery only to find pots of cactus upturned including the one with the nest. Momma Quail and her eggs were nowhere to be found, not even a feather or an egg shell. Perhaps Momma escaped but I imagined her eggs were swallowed whole by the pigs.
It’s tough sometimes to live in harmony with nature. Should I have cordoned off the cactus to ward off attack? An attack I didn’t see coming? Or should I let nature take its course? I like eggs for breakfast sometimes; I even eat my share of chicken. Shouldn’t the javelinas be afforded the same consideration?
The other evening we sat outside on the front patio watching the sunset illuminate the mountains. A Momma Quail appeared on top of the rock wall, looked around then peeped out marching orders before flying gracefully to the ground. As we watched, one by one, tiny quail chicks popped up on the wall then hopped down to scurry across the drive, tiny legs skittering as fast as hummingbird wings. Papa brought up the rear. I knew these were not the babies I had peeked at daily but I decided it wouldn’t hurt to pretend. I started counting them. Sixteen in all.